The Loudness War

Yes, today is Memorial Day. No, this post is not about literal war, it’s about music.

My idea for this post initially came from my discovery of the Spotify setting for “normalized volume.” It is on by default but can be turned off manually. I have chosen to turn it off and here’s why: Normalized volume has helped to end the loudness war but it restricts dynamic range.

I will soon explain what all of this means, but for it to make sense, I need to define a few terms.

First, what is the difference between volume and loudness in music? Volume is a personal preference that can be increased or decreased depending on the listener whereas loudness is a set number that is determined within music production and will not change, no matter the volume of the song. Increasing loudness brings up the quieter parts of the song, resulting an overall louder sound.

The loudness war resulted because artists discovered that louder tracks stood out from the crowd, gaining more attention and sales. However, as music gets louder, it results in compression which lowers dynamic range, the ratio between the quietest and loudest parts of a song. There is less definition between different instruments and percussion and it leads to a more flat sounding song, with some even saying over-compression leads to ear fatigue.

Below is a visual showing everything I just explained and here you can hear a great example of differences in loudness and how it changes music.

“A graph showing the loudness of Germany’s biggest singles from 1965 to 2013. Each circle represents a song, while the black line is the average. Compiled by Michael Oehler, Professor of musical acoustics, at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf”

Graph of the Loudness Wars

As you can see, after the loudness war, the loudness seems to level out. This is because of normalized volume. (A misleading term because the normalized volume setting actually normalizes loudness… but okay.) Nowadays, most streaming platforms, from YouTube to Apple Music to Spotify, use normalized volume. This eliminates the competition for louder music getting more attention.

According to the Spotify FAQ,

“Audio files are delivered to Spotify from distributors all over the world and are often mixed/mastered at different volume levels. We want to ensure the best listening experience for users, so we apply Loudness Normalization to create a balance.

It also levels the playing field between soft and loud masters. Louder tracks have often been cited as sounding better to listeners, so Loudness Normalization removes any unfair advantage.

Note: The web player and Spotify apps integrated into third-party devices (such as speakers and TVs) don’t currently use Loudness Normalization.”

I hope you learned something new from reading this post and that you consider turning off normalized volume in order to get a fuller, more dynamic range from your music listening!

Here are some extra interesting music topics to explore:

How Focus Music Hacks Your Brain – Cheddar Explains (6:08)

Streaming music is changing the way songs are written (6:37)

Stereo vs Mono EXPLAINED (7:07)

Why The Weeknd & Dua Lipa Sound Like The 80s | Genius News (7:26)

Sideways – one of my favorite YouTube channels which does longer videos on music analysis and topics like “How Silent Films Invented the Soundtrack,” “How a Superhero Theme Works,” and “How Trailer Music Tricks You

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